Bosnia and Herzegovina | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Bosnia-Herzegovina's civil liberties rating improved from 4 to 3 due to the deepening maturity of civic and political organizations, including the holding of successful municipal elections throughout the country in October, the first postwar elections completely organized and financed by Bosnian institutions themselves


Nine years after the end of a brutal civil war, Bosnia-Herzegovina held its first postwar elections in 2004 that were organized entirely by the country's authorities themselves. At the same time, the lack of an internal consensus in Bosnia on both the nature of the state and how it should function continued to retard the country's development. In June, Bosnia was denied membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace program. Nevertheless, Bosnia's government still managed to make some progress on several pieces of legislation important for its integration into Europe. Significantly, this legislation was passed by Bosnian authorities themselves and was not forced upon them by international officials.

Bosnia-Herzegovina became one of six constituent republics of Yugoslavia in 1945. As Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in the early 1990s, Bosnia-Herzegovina was recognized as an independent state in April 1992. A 43-month-long civil war immediately ensued, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of individuals and the "ethnic cleansing" and forced resettlement of approximately half of Bosnia-Herzegovina's population. In November 1995, the Dayton peace accords brought an end to the civil war by creating a loosely knit state composed of the Bosniac-Croat "Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina" and the largely Serbian Republika Srpska (RS). The Dayton accords also gave the international community a decisive role in running post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina, manifested in the significant powers and authorities (known as the "Bonn powers") granted to international civilian agencies such as the Office of the High Representative (OHR). Peace and security in post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina is provided by the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR). Despite these considerable efforts by the international community to integrate Bosnia, however, most aspects of political, social, and economic life remain divided along ethnic lines.

Bosnia-Herzegovina's latest presidential and parliamentary elections were held in October 2002. Contrary to the hopes of many members of the international community, Bosnian voters across the ethnic divide mainly gave their votes to nationalist parties. The most important ethnically based parties - the Bosniac Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) - took control of the joint state presidency, the joint state parliament, and both entities' governments.

In October 2004, the country held local elections in 142 municipalities. Importantly, these were the first elections since the war funded and organized entirely by the country itself. Voter turnout for the elections was 45.5 percent, and the three main ethnically based parties that have dominated the country's politics since 1990 were again victorious, continuing a pattern that has persisted throughout the postwar period.

Bosnia-Herzegovina's central government made some progress in 2004 towards passing several pieces of legislation crucial to its plan for European integration, but not without prodding from outsiders. In March, the European Union (EU) reported that Bosnia's progress in fulfilling Stabilization and Association Process agreements was disappointing, but by the summer, Bosnian institutions had passed 21 of 40 laws on the EU agenda and 19 were still under debate in parliament. Importantly, Bosnian authorities had passed these laws on their own, breaking a postwar pattern in which international authorities had imposed laws on deadlocked institutions. Over the past several years, international officials had in this fashion imposed more than 470 pieces of legislation on recalcitrant local authorities.

Overall, however, there is growing concern among international observers and Bosnians themselves over the slow pace of progress in the country and the resulting international isolation in which Bosnia finds itself. Bosnia-Herzegovina remains one of the few countries in Europe (together with Serbia-Montenegro) that is not a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace, to which it was denied membership in June largely because the RS has failed to apprehend any suspected war criminals on its territory. Bosnia also has not joined the World Trade Organization.

In July, perhaps one of the most serious critiques of the way the international community is running Bosnia came in the form of a report published by the Parliamentary Committee of the Council of Europe, one of the few regional organizations Bosnia has managed to enter. The report questioned how compatible Bosnia's membership in that body is given the High Representative's near dictatorial Bonn powers to dismiss elected officials from office and freeze their assets, without any requirement to show the basis on which such decisions are made. Prospects now also appear bleak for Bosnia's request to the EU to open negotiations on a Stabilization and Association Agreement.

All of this uncertainty has an impact on the economy as well; less than a third of Bosnia's working-age population is currently in the labor force, compared to an EU average of 64 percent. On a more positive note, however, in 2004, the World Bank announced that it was officially reclassifying Bosnia from a "post-conflict" to a "transitional" country.

At the end of the year, the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) ended its mission, turning over responsibilities for maintaining security and enforcing the Dayton accords to an EU-led force popularly known as EUFOR.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

In general, voters can freely elect their representatives and can form political parties insofar as party programs are compatible with the Dayton peace accords. The High Representative, however, has the authority to remove publicly elected officials from office if they are deemed to be obstructing the peace process. In June, the current international High Representative, Sir Paddy Ashdown, removed 59 Bosnian Serb officials from their posts in government and state-owned enterprises, allegedly for obstructing implementation of the Dayton accords and aiding fugitive Radovan Karadzic's support network; 49 of the 59 dismissed officials were from the leading Bosnian Serb party, the SDS.

Many analysts believe that as a consequence of such policies, the Bosnian electorate has increasingly lost interest in the electoral process. Turnout has dropped consistently for postwar elections: in 1998, turnout was 71 percent; in 2000, it was 64 percent; and in 2002, it sank to 54 percent. Electoral turnout for the October 2004 municipal elections declined to 45.5 percent.

Corruption remains a major problem in the country, especially because it is widely believed that a direct link exists between organized crime groups and extremist political forces. Bosnia-Herzegovina was ranked 82 out of 146 countries surveyed in the Transparency International 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

A plethora of independent electronic and print media organizations operate in Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, journalism in Bosnia continues to be plagued by a relatively low standard of professional ethics, a reliance on foreign donations for survival, and the consideration that most media outlets appeal only to narrow ethnic constituencies. Serious investigative journalism remains a dangerous activity for Bosnian journalists. In October, a journalist in the RS known for his exposes on organized crime and war criminals was badly beaten near the town of Bosanko Grahovo. Another problem for the media has been a growing division in Bosnian society between secularists and more religiously oriented segments of the population. The leader of the Bosnian Muslim community, for instance, appealed to Bosnian Muslim business owners to join an advertising boycott against the Sarajevo newsweekly Dani after the magazine had attacked him and the policies of the official Islamic Community in the country. In July, the HDZ demanded that Bosnian Croats be allowed to create a separate public broadcasting network for their community, despite plans by the international community to implement a reform of the state broadcasting system that would be nonethnic. There were no reports of denial of access to the Internet.

Individuals enjoy freedom of religious belief and practice in areas dominated by members of their own ethnic group, but members of local ethnic minorities often face various forms of discrimination or harassment. In January, a new Law on Religious Freedom was passed granting churches and religious communities legal status akin to those enjoyed by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In March, partly as a result of a spillover effect of the violence in nearby Kosovo, a Serbian Orthodox Church was burned in the Bosniac-majority town of Bugojno, and a mosque was then vandalized in the town of Gradiska. Other relatively minor acts of vandalism against various holy sites associated with all three major religions occurred throughout the year as well. The three major religious organizations in the country - Islamic, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox - have claims against the government for property confiscated during the Communist period.

While the various governments in Bosnia-Herzegovina do not restrict academic freedom, ethnic favoritism in appointments to academic positions, and the politicization of such appointments, remain a continuing problem.

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and the various entity and cantonal governments generally respect these rights. However, ethnic or religious minorities in a particular area often find it more difficult to exercise these rights than the local majority population. Although there are no legal restrictions on the right of workers to form and join labor unions, which many workers do, unions are mainly divided along ethnic lines.

Corruption in the judiciary, police forces, and civil service forms a considerable obstacle to establishing the rule of law in Bosnia-Herzegovina. International officials claim that there is an "imbalance between the components of the rule of law." The judiciary is still considered to be unduly influenced by nationalist political parties and executive branches of government. Judges who show some independence are reported to have come under various forms of intimidation. A new criminal code was introduced in March 2003, along with a new Bosnian State Court and State Prosecutor's office. Initial reports suggest, however, that legal officials in Bosnia are having some difficulty making the transition from the earlier system, used in the former Yugoslavia and based on European-style code law, to the Anglo-American approach adopted in the new system.

One of the most significant provisions of the new criminal code allows Bosnian authorities to prosecute individuals who aid or abet persons indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The code also contains provisions allowing for the dismissal of public officials who fail to arrest, detain, or extradite those so charged and for the imposition of a prison sentence of up to 10 years for such individuals. Nevertheless, cooperation with the ICTY is often strained, especially in the RS. In June, however, Bosnian Serb officials accepted the results of an official local inquiry into the Srebrenica massacres, where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were killed in 1995. The most sought-after indicted war criminals from Bosnia-Herzegovina's civil conflict - former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic - remain at large.

In 2004, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced that 1,000,000 Bosnian refugees and displaced persons had returned to their homes since the end of the war, roughly half the total number driven from their homes during the fighting. The vast majority of property restitution cases left over from the war have now been resolved. Despite these relative successes, however, many people are returning to their prewar homes only to sell their property and move back to areas in which they are members of the local ethnic majority. Consequently, Bosnia- Herzegovina is now divided into three relatively ethnically homogenous Bosniac, Croat, and Serb areas. Nevertheless, there have been some large-scale, permanent returns, particularly in the northern RS in and around the town of Kozarac.

Women are legally entitled to full equality with men. However, they are significantly underrepresented in politics and government and are frequently discriminated against in the workplace in favor of demobilized soldiers. To compensate for the absence of women in public life, political parties have to list three women among the top 10 names on their lists of candidates. A significant problem in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina has become its emergence as a destination country for trafficked women, and UN reports claim that the large international civil and military presence in the country provides considerable demand for such services. The new Bosnian criminal code that went into effect in March 2003 specifically makes trafficking in human beings a crime and increases penalties available to law enforcement officials for such offenses.